If Matt Damon’s face on the poster hadn’t already clued you in, The Great Wall is not really about the Great Wall of China. The famous structure is the set dressing for a monster movie, and nothing more. Despite the fact that the Great Wall of China has centuries upon centuries of fascinating history for filmmakers to pilfer, this US-Chinese hybrid production goes a different route. Why draw from the drama of actual history when you could opt for some digitized monsters (their eyeballs are in their shoulders!) and Matt Damon rocking a man bun?
Damon plays William (no Hunting this time), a mercenary whose failure to speak in an identifiable accent is lazily attributed to his background as a sellsword who fights “under many flags.” William traverses the treacherous mountains of northern China alongside Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal), the Robin to his Batman, volleying corny one-liners in a desperate attempt to achieve charming buddy-movie repartee. Their mission to find gunpowder is waylaid by a mysterious monster — the first of many, they discover, after they’re taken prisoner by the Nameless Order, a military faction that guards the Great Wall.
Behold the might of the Imperial Army. Instead of wasting their energy on character work or a well-developed plot, The Great Wall saves all its juice for military scope. The army is so vast it required color-coding to distinguish the weapons specialists within. Most memorable are the blue Cranes, women who bungee-jump straight into the monsters’ jaws, spears in hand. They’re led by the fierce Commander Lin (Jing Tian), whose initial suspicion towards William is abated after he wins her respect with his sick party trick (it involves pottery and a bow and arrow). Lin and William make suggestive eye contact and deliver vague platitudes about greed and trust — dialogue which acts as a barely-coherent suture from one scene to the next.
The Wall is the spine of the film’s meager skeleton. Whether bathed in moonlight or draped in mist, the Wall provides enough breathtaking vistas to momentarily distract you from the threadbare plot. Visual spectacle is the film’s biggest (and only) selling point. When he’s not diverting attention with epic landscapes, director Zhang Yimou is finding another creative way to kill monsters. Each set piece barrels towards this simple objective — how long can we rehash the same scene over and over again until the audience catches on to the repetition? The monsters, called the Tao Tei, look like the progeny of a dinosaur-hyena-orc menage-a-trois, and while it’s fun to see these toothy mutants mowed down the first time, it gets old after the second and third and tenth.
If the movie feels like it was made by a committee, that’s because it was. Legendary Pictures CEO Thomas Tull had the skeleton of an idea — a “Marco Polo esque” explorer stumbles upon Chinese builders frantically constructing a wall. But he didn’t know what was on the other side. He solicited the help of World War Z author Max Brooks, who designed the monster, along with Edward Zwick and Marshal Herskovitz, producers who specialize in bringing white dudes to foreign lands (they produced Blood Diamond and The Last Samurai). Yimou is a decorated Chinese director who’s collected top festival honors and Academy nominations for his work in the late eighties and nineties (Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern), though in recent years he’s become more recognized for his direction of visual spectacle, like his work in the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
But it’s compelling characters — not a big production — that lay the groundwork for a watchable film. Like another wannabe-blockbuster failure, Assassin’s Creed, inventive action set pieces are not a substitute for a coherent plot. Whether bloated and convoluted like Assassin’s Creed or threadbare like The Great Wall, if the film can’t make you care about its characters, it doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
Unlike Assassin’s Creed, The Great Wall isn’t based on a video game — though it feels like it is. Camerawork aligns us with weapons, not people — soaring past snarling monsters and diving into their stampeding masses at the point of an arrow is the closest you’ll get to identifying with a character. Since the history is stripped, so is the fun of doing a historical epic — all that’s left is the medieval weaponry and breastplates.
When the credits started rolling, a man sitting a few seats down from me stood up and clapped. This went on for about two minutes. At first I thought his applause was ironic — he was clapping so forcefully it sounded painful. But after the first full minute, the tenor of his ovation became defiantly sincere — he was the lonely arbiter of poor taste, the trolling defender of trash. The rest of us stared, perplexed. Needless to say, this incident was more entertaining (and gave me more to think about — what was his deal? Did he know the filmmakers couldn’t hear him? What is your story, man?) than the entire movie.